Connecting Mining Communities: Whitesburg Forum

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalshop, and the After Coal team are excited to converge on Tuesday, October 7 in Whitesburg with guests from Wales.

This will be the second of three forums about just transition in the coalfields. Mair Francis, founder of the DOVE Workshop, and Hywel Francis, a Labour Member of Parliament for Aberavon, Wales, will offer stories from former coal communities in Wales.

WalesForumAdEvent Date:
October 7, 2014 – 6:00pm to 9:00pm
Event Venue:
Appalshop Theater
91 Madison Ave, Whitesburg KY

 

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Homegrown Tourism Forum Report

After Coal director Tom Hansell presented at a forum co-sponsored by the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council in Elkhorn City, Kentucky September 18.  He shares his reflections on the event.

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This mural created by local students working with artist Susan Steinman points the way to a riverside trail. Photo by Tom Hansell

 

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge that spans the Russell Fork River in downtown Elkhorn City (population 1000) since my last visit.  This communtiy and its people have been close to my heart for a long time.  I made my first documentary The Breaks of the Mountain (1999) about local efforts to use the rivers and trails surrounding Elkhorn City to drive adventure tourism.   The Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council formed during the production of the documentary and has been a driving force in celebrating the unique cultural and natural heritage of the area.

The world has changed a great deal is the 15 years since I finished The Breaks of The Mountain.  Coal employment was on the decline even during the Clinton era and coal production in East Kentucky peaked in 2001.  Over the past two years the bottom has dropped out of the market for central Appalachian coal.

The local economy is just as tough as it was in 1999, some might say it is tougher. Several storefronts in Elkhorn City still sit empty, and the venerable Rusty Fork Cafe on Patty Loveless boulevard closed its doors during the past year.  But many residents in Elkhorn City have plans for a better future.  One bright spot is the The Pine Mountain Trail State Park, a 110 mile trail on the ridge that forms the Kentucky/Virginia state line.  A  trail head opened in Elkhorn City a few years ago, and many residents see the combination of the trail, the nearby Breaks Interstate Park, and the whitewater of the Russell Fork River as a natural foundation for a new local economy. The Heritage Council is helping to host a 100 mile trail race in a few weeks, and it is great to see so much energy around the Pine Mountain Trail.

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Tim Belcher, president of the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council introduces After Coal director Tom Hansell at the forum. Photo by Steve Ruth

At the forum in Elkhorn City, I showed a short video that highlighted two examples of local tourism efforts  from former coal communities in Wales.  The first was a private enterprise called Call of The Wild.  This company uses the outdoors to provide management training for businesses throughout the UK.   The second example is a mountain bike park built on an abandoned mine site (now public property) in Glyncorrwyg.  The local community all pitched in one pound per household to match government support of the project.

After watching the stories from Wales, local residents shared their visions for the future and identified obstacles that may prevent their vision from being realized.    A series of great ideas quickly surfaced, some as simple as improving signage so that visitors can quickly locate attractions. Others offered long term plans such as building a ropes course and a training center on riverside property.  The main obstacle identified by residents of Elkhorn City is the lack of access to development capital.  Local banks are often wary of funding start up businesses with a high rate of failure, and local government is strapped for cash.

A view from one of the overlooks in the Breaks Interstate Park.  Photo by Tom Hansell

A view from one of the overlooks in the Breaks Interstate Park. Photo by Tom Hansell

These are not just local challenges for Elkhorn City, but challenges faced by residents in rural communities throughout the US and Great Britain.  To create a better future, local people will need to be creative about using local assets and building partnerships to access the funds they need to regenerate their community.

The Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council works to ensure that unique local assets are at the heart of any plans to build a future after coal.  This place based approach provides a vital element for creating sustainable coalfield communities.

The Homegrown Tourism forum in Elkhorn City is the first of three forums featuring the work of the After Coal project.  A forum to discuss sustainable development policies will be held October 7 at the Appalchop Theater in Whitesburg, KY; and a forum to discuss the role of youth and the arts in community regeneration will be held October 28 on the campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan, KY.

 

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Lessons from Wales to Help Homegrown Tourism in Appalachia

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After Coal director Tom Hansell will travel to Elkhorn City, Kentucky September 18 to present clips from the After Coal documentary. This free public event will be held between 5 and 7 pm September 18 in the Elkhorn City Public Library. The forum is co-sponsored by the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council and is supported by a grant from the Chorus Foundation.

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After Coal Presents: Community Forums in Eastern Kentucky

14265784357_5b2773e123_oMark your calendar! In September and October, the After Coal team has planned three community forums for residents and policy makers in eastern Kentucky.

Short video clips from our documentary and guests from Wales will place the challenges facing Appalachian coal communities in a global context.

 

Community Forum Schedule

Homegrown Tourism
Thursday, September 18, 5:00 – 6:30pm
Elkhorn City Public Library, 150 East Main Street  Elkhorn City, KY
With Tim Belcher, Elkhorn Area Heritage Council
And Tom Hansell, Appalachian State University

 

Funding Sustainable Development

Tuesday, October 7, 7:00-8:30 pm
Appalshop Theater, 91 Madison Avenue, Whitesburg, KY
With Hywel Francis, Member of Parliament representing Aberavon, Wales
Mair Francis, Founder of DOVE workshop

Youth, Arts, and Community Regeneration

Tuesday, October 28, 6:00 – 8:00 pm
Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College – Harlan Campus 164 Ball Park Road, Harlan, KY
With Richard Davies, Media instructor at Merthyr Tydfill College, Wales
And Robert Gipe, Higher Ground Project, Harlan County

Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1qD1rRV Steve Bustin, via Medical Media Training

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Mapping the Music of Coal

One of the goals of the After Coal project is to employ digital story telling technology to deepen connections between Appalachia and Wales.  Aaron Pardieu has been working on a “song map” that uses the Place Stories interface to enter music collected for After Coal on Google maps.  Aaron explains his work:

Greetings to the After Coal community!

Aaron@Appalshop

Aaron Pardieu is currently working as an intern as the Appalshop Media Arts Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Aaron Pardieu and I am a graduate student at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. While I have been living in the mountains of NC for roughly three years now, I am originally from Louisville, Kentucky and spent my college years in Richmond, KY. I am currently earning a Master of Arts in Appalachian Studies.

I began working with the After Coal team in January as a Graduate Assistant. What attracted me most to the After Coal project was its neutral tone. The project is focused on documenting solutions rather than the damage. Participatory revitalization projects are key to providing relief to both the Welsh and Appalachian regions.

 

PlaceStories Map Screen Shot

So far, my involvement with the project has focused on the music featured in After Coal. We selected six songs that we thought best represented the project and created short videos of the performances to be posted to Place Stories. The innovative site uses a Google maps interface to share stories between different communities around the world. The site was designed for use in rural communities with limited internet access, such as the coalfields of Appalachia and Wales.

The songs we selected include traditional work songs as well as original music by artists from both regions. Songs from the Appalachian region include Justin Taylor’s composition Better You Find My Devil, Lord performed by the cast of Higher Ground, a community based theater project in Harlan County, Kentucky and Coal Miners’ Blues performed by Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and Mike Seeger for an audience of miners in Onllwyn Wales. 

Songs from the United Kingdom include an original piece by Welsh artists Christopher Hastings and Huw Pudner titled The Gates of Cardiff Jail chronicling the worker uprising in the Welsh town of Merthyr in 1831, and Blackleg Miner, a union song from northeastern England that was featured in the 1990 documentary From the Shadows of Power by Jean Donahue. 

These short video clips provide great examples of how music helps build community. This concept of ‘community’ is valuable tool for building power in regions that face serious economic challenges from an increasingly globalized economy.

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Crossing borders, deepening exchange

After Coal producer Patricia Beaver and director Tom Hansell traveled to Wales early this month to screen a work in progress of the documentary. The pair returned to the communities where they recorded scenes for the upcoming film to get feedback. Tom Hansell writes about his experience:

 

The M4 expressway uses the Severn Bridge to cross the border between England and Wales.

The Severn Bridge crosses the border between England and Wales.

Crossing the Severn Bridge, I began to get nervous. Some of this nervousness had to do with driving in the left hand side of the road, which felt dangerous to my American brain. But the major source of my anxiety was our plan to screen a draft of our documentary to the people who appear in it and asking for their honest feedback.

Many documentary makers believe in keeping their work under wraps until it is finely polished. However, I was taught by the filmmakers at the Appalshop media arts center that the communities you work in are your most important audience.  While this participatory process can be time consuming and occasionally difficult, I still find it a necessary part of grounding my documentary projects, especially when I am working in a culture that I am not a part of, such as the former coalfields of South Wales.

Pat and I listened to many diverse perspectives in our series of screenings across the South Wales valleys. One of the most interesting groups we screened to was a mix of students, poets, and community sponsored by Merthyr Tydfil College.

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director Tom Hansell enters the Red House

The screening took place in the newly renovated Red House – the old town hall and the site of the first democratic government in a town that had been dominated by the 19th century coal and steel barons who built Merthyr Tydfil. The mix of young and old in our focus group yielded interesting conversation. Many of the older folks had participated in the historic 1984 miners strike, while most of the students were born the following decade and knew little of the events.

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The Red House in Merthyr Tydfill

 

In some ways, this generational shift is part of the shift from an industrial economy that built towns like Merthyr Tydfill. However, a shifting economic base is not easy to navigate, and many young people in Wales still struggle to find job opportunities. Some of the students we talked to were planning to move from their hometown to the coastal cities of Cardiff or Swansea in search of better opportunity. Richard Davies, the director of the media program at Merthyr Tydfill College, is one exception. After living away from Wales, he found his way back home and now works to create opportunities for young people to create artistic projects that perpetuate life and culture of Merthyr.

This place based approach to community building parallels to the work we do at the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, as well as at our partner organizations such as the Appalshop media arts center in Whitesburg, KY.  As we shared ideas of how to reinvent coal communities with our focus groups in Wales, my nervousness dissipated and many wonderful conversations started. My hope is that these conversations will strengthen the connections between two deeply rich cultures.

- Tom Hansell, June 2014

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On Archives and Memories

by Angela Wiley

This morning at a coffee shop near Washington, D.C., I started talking with the person working across the table. As we wandered through talk about work projects, she remarked, “What’s really important, though, are the memories we make. Achievements are great, but if we leave no room to create memories with people, there is no point.” My name is Angela, and I have been working with After Coal since 2012. It hardly feels like work, so I drank up the words of coffee-shop-person-across-the-table and attached them to the archival memories I am sifting through, pulling apart, and stringing back together.

My interest in memory during the early months of this year involved combing through contemporary interviews, songs, and archival video that help tell the story of John Gaventa, Richard Greatrex, and Helen Lewis. A treasure trove of media and ephemera is housed in the Helen M. Lewis collection at Appalachian State University, and these materials are the foundation for my “reconstruction” of a shared memory. As I listen and read, it becomes clear that this trio’s experiences were never meant to be hidden, and that they were in the business of capturing shared memories of others. Now, I am a layer in the cake, so to speak.

In a practical sense, Gaventa, Greatrex and Lewis gathered stories from what would be the last generation of coal miners in South Wales. Meanwhile, bitter strikes in Wales and Appalachia offered a practical backdrop for the exchange of stories via video and conversation. Gaventa and Lewis were transplants from the U.S., while Greatrex acted as a local translator of sorts. In a 2013 interview, Greatrex illustrated the way work unfolded

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Richard Greatrex, 2013.

John would come down from Oxford most weekends and we would troll off and find our subjects, again not with any great big over-arching concept, very much in that kind of anthropological “let’s find out what’s there”…And of course, because of Helen’s soft, calming touch getting to people wasn’t difficult at all, she was very much the front person for the relations with the local community. John was the organizer of things and I looked after that bloody equipment and lugged it around everywhere.

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Helen Lewis follows Welsh miners underground, circa 1975. Screen captured from footage shot by Richard Greatrex.

Many of the “Welsh Tapes” offer footage from strike marches, tours from community members, and conversations in living rooms. Lewis had a particular interest in the women of coalfield communities, who were typically married to miners:

…I asked them if they would do an evening talking about what it was liked to be married to the macho Welshman miners. And so, Richard and I go to the house and the women and I are sitting around the kitchen table. And he is climbing the stairs and sitting up on the stairs kind of hiding, but with his camera. And we had this great discussion—which they really tell jokes and laugh and talk about their husbands and what it is like to be married to a Welshman coal miner, or coal truck driver.

The Welfare Hall, was a repeated location throughout the archive, and represented a community living room of sorts. Meetings among miners, band practices, and choir performances all take place in the hall. The location was also a stage for direct exchange through music.

An “American invasion” in South Wales included the Strange Creek Singers, a bluegrass band named for a town in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Their songs of spirit and struggle in Appalachia survived on video and now in digital form. With decades of distance from the filming project in South Wales, Gaventa was able to contextualize the power of exchange via music, transatlantic visits, and video sharing in a 2012 interview:

 

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John Gaventa, 2012.

…The challenge these days is linking those enclaves and pockets of the global economy where resources are being extracted…they can be in Appalachia or Wales or Nigeria or Thailand or Malaysia or Chile. The answers aren’t going to come from a macro perspective I don’t think. I think they are going to come from a community’s perspective as communities try to come up with their solutions and able to exchange their answers with other similar situated parts of the world.

The exchange of videos, music, and stories helped document the last real generation of coal mining in Wales and in Appalachia. As mechanization took hold in both areas, and the Thatcher regime effectively halted production in Wales, both regions had to begin facing life after coal. What was recorded, learned, and compiled in the Helen Lewis Collection are threads that will be woven into a new record with the After Coal documentary. They paint an intimate portrait of a precise moment in time — and such detail can serve as a springboard for dialogue about continuing global issues.

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